KIKI MAN RAY: Art, Love, and Rivalry in 1920s Paris
We open just as Kiki de Montparnasse begins to sing. It’s a scene narrated in the present tense, stitched together from a patchwork of memories — for who didn’t leave a record of their time in 1920s Paris? Especially if they’d managed to elbow their way into the Jockey, with its sticky floors, graffitied walls and stiff cocktails, where Kiki — queen of the neighborhood — purred her nostalgic songs. If you could smell it, said one contemporary, her voice would be “garlic hitting a pan’s hot butter and wine”: pungent, irresistible and impossible to recapture once it’s gone.
Mark Braude’s exuberantly entertaining biography sets out to rebalance the much-told story of Left Bank Paris, in which Kiki — model, memoirist and muse — is usually cast as a bit player. He brings that milieu to life in all its grit and energy — but also the larger sociopolitical pressures that myopic mythmaking leaves out: the still-vivid trauma of World War I and the growing conservative backlash against everything the cosmopolitan city represented. Montparnasse, like Greenwich Village, was a carnival, a permitted inversion of the expected order, where, for a moment, society’s outcasts could rule.
Kiki was one such outcast. Born Alice Prin in 1901 in a Burgundian village to an unmarried country girl, she was raised by her grandmother alongside five illegitimate cousins. Alice didn’t hide or reject her origins. They forged her character: her charm, her wildness and, especially, her generosity. Even when she was singing for a few sous in a dive bar, she’d buy you a drink if you were short. But she didn’t pine for country life. At 12, a lanky adolescent with tumbling black hair and a pointed nose, she was sent to live with her mother in Paris. In artsy, down-at-heel Montparnasse (then known simply as “the Quarter”) she found her home, her people and her calling.
Alice was just 16 when a sculptor invited her to pose at his studio in a ramshackle alley where a slew of artists eked out a living — one of his neighbors, a Romanian named Constantin Brancusi, trapped and ate the chickens that wandered the street. She found the work fun, easy, lucrative and — despite the age-old association between modeling and sex work — perfectly safe. Her mother disagreed, marching into the artists’ den to drag her daughter home. But Alice had found something she was good at, and broke off contact with her mother in order to keep doing it.
To gain steady work, she needed to meet more artists, and in order to do that, she would have to conquer the Café Rotonde. Located in the heart of the Quarter, the Rotonde had a huge terrace, a bohemian clientele and a strict pecking order. Alice worked hard to charm the proprietor and soon became a fixture, gaining entree to the studios of Jewish émigré artists like Modigliani, Chaïm Soutine and her good friend Moïse Kisling. Nicknamed Kiki — often a slang term for a prostitute — she grew assertive; people liked her jokes and her belligerence. When a waiter at another cafe insisted she dress more respectably, she shot back that “a cafe isn’t a church” and besides, “All the American bitches come in without hats.”
Ah, yes, the Americans — what would 1920s Paris be without them? Among the thousands flocking to the city was a “short, scrappy and swarthy” Philadelphia artist born Emmanuel Radnitzky, “a pure product of immigrant America” in both his ambition and taste for self-reinvention. Man Ray, as he styled himself, had first fallen in with a crowd of expat Europeans in New York who — under the banner of Dada — toyed with tossing out the whole edifice of art, society, culture and its accompanying rules. In 1921, he followed his friend Marcel Duchamp to Paris, only to discover that all anyone wanted to talk about was America. He’d deliberately left America behind, along with his given name and his first wife, a Belgian poet who went by Adon Lacroix. When they separated, he beat her with a belt, telling her “to explain the marks to her lover.” Although Braude doesn’t dwell on the incident, it gives a horrifying glimpse of Man Ray’s vicious temper, and his dehumanizing attitude toward the women with whom he was intimate.
Kiki and Man Ray met, as everyone did, at a cafe. They slept together during their second photo session and soon after that began sharing a tiny studio down the block from the Rotonde. At first, Kiki fulfilled the traditional role of artist’s companion, acting as muse, cheerleader, secretary and housekeeper; she entertained with a spirit of abundance that belied their lack of money. In return, Man Ray refused to say he loved her, holding to the idea that “a romantic relationship was a kind of war.” He was also at war with his own talent, desperate to be hailed as the great painter he wasn’t, rather than the great photographer he was. Despite disparaging the work, he made a good living as a portrait photographer. And in the Quarter, “everyone led to someone else”: Francis Picabia to Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, James Joyce.
More than anyone, Man Ray photographed Kiki. The most famous image they made together is both silly and stunning: Kiki’s naked back and buttocks, her limbs folded in and turbaned head in profile, a violin’s f-holes overlaid on her skin. Braude strains at some length to unfurl a meaning commensurate with the photograph’s status as the most expensive ever sold at auction. It’s “a picture of life,” he suggests, marking a final break with the war, or perhaps “a fantasist’s prelude to the inevitable disappointment of reality.” More simply, it’s a knowing joke about the role of the model, and the vexed question of her collaboration with her artist-lover. Can she be a musician, or only ever an instrument?
For all its liveliness, this attempt at restoring Kiki to prominence does not quite succeed at making her memorable as an artist. Braude describes her as a talented, if uncommitted, painter, a realist among the Surrealists, whose art and temperament were rooted in tangible pleasures rather than abstract ideas. “The sunny skies pulse with a blue you could fly into,” he writes of her paintings, which depict the rural scenes and characters of her childhood. Like Man Ray, she was interested in film, and appeared onscreen — credited as “Kiki Ray” or “Kiki Man Ray” — in experimental works including Fernand Léger’s 1924 “Ballet Mécanique.”
But most of all, night after night and year after year, Kiki performed live, in cafes and bars around the Quarter, her natural shyness at war with her love of singing, until alcohol and cocaine brokered the peace. Everyone remembered her, but with the exception of a few minutes on tape and film, and in innumerable works of art as a model, her presence is evanescent. What Kiki created did not accrue in value and status like the works of her peers. As Braude observes, markets and museums shape artistic legacies — and you can’t auction charisma.
Joanna Scutts’s most recent book is “Hotbed: Bohemian Greenwich Village and the Secret Club That Sparked Modern Feminism.”
KIKI MAN RAY: Art, Love, and Rivalry in 1920s Paris, byMark Braude | Illustrated | 304 pp. | W.W. Norton | $30